On the Virtue of Thinking You’re Right
It does not seem too far of a stretch to say that the cardinal sin of our day is epistemological confidence. To believe that one is correct in his beliefs and others are wrong is cited as the root of many evils including bigotry, intolerance, and religious wars. If we could simply eschew this mentality, it is said, we would have a more peaceful and open society. For the last decade I have presented many of my students with the following statement for them to evaluate and consider whether it represents their own view:
I think that all of my beliefs are right, and anyone that disagrees with them is wrong.
The response has been consistent. The overwhelming majority of the class will describe the statement as narrow-minded, arrogant, and intolerant. They will decidedly state that it does not represent what they think. Is this the appropriate response, however?
Let us refer to the above statement as the Epistemological Confidence Statement (ECS). I suggest that not only is 1) the ECS something that all people hold to, but also that 2) this is a good thing, and should be affirmed instead of vilified. A two-part argument will be provided to defend the first part, and then consideration will be given to the consequences of denying it as a method of arguing for part two.
First, let us consider the first half of the ECS; namely, that one thinks that all his beliefs are right. That we have beliefs is uncontroversial. A large majority of our thoughts could be said to be statements (or judgments)which can be identified as true or false. Further, we hold the beliefs we do, presumably, because we think that they are indeed true. If asked why one believes ‘x’, it would be replied that he believes ‘x’ to be true. What other reason would there be for believing it? So, the first part of the ECS would seem to be true of any and all beliefs that one has. At any given moment, it would be said of any particular belief, that one does indeed believe that it is correct. If not, he would no longer hold to that belief.
The second, and generally more controversial, part of the ECS is simply an extension of the first half. If someone is asked why they hold to ‘x’, and the reply is that ‘x’ is true, then a follow up question as to why this same person does not believe ‘not x’, would be met with the answer that to hold to ‘not x’ would be false. This is so obvious as to not even be noticed. In fact, the question itself would likely seem superfluous in light of the first part of the ECS. If we believe a certain statement to be true, and therefore hold to it, then by necessity we are rejecting the opposite belief because to hold that one would be false.
For example, suppose John believes that God exists. If we ask John to identify which of the two statements, ‘God exists’ or ‘God does not exist’, represents his beliefs, he would affirm the former and deny the latter. If asked why he says that the former characterizes his beliefs, he would say that he believes that statement to be true. Conversely, the latter does not represent his beliefs because he thinks that statement is false. Assuming a desire for true and not false beliefs, John accords his beliefs with what he believes to be true. Consequently, John would also have to say that he would believe that anyone else who held the belief ‘God exists’ would be correct in his assessment, but anyone who held the belief ‘God does not exist’ would not be correct. Again, this appears to simply be a part of the nature of having beliefs.
At this point, it may be helpful to make some observations in light of some possible objections. First, note that this is not a metaphysical claim about what actually is correct. Rather, it is an epistemological claim about the nature of what it means to have beliefs. In the example with John, we have not said whether it is true or not that God exists, but simply that whatever one believes about the question, it must be the case that he holds his view to be correct and the opposite side to be incorrect. This would hold just as true for the person who believes that God does not exist.
Second, to say that one’s beliefs are true is not the same thing as saying that one cannot be corrected or mistaken. It is simply a statement about his current attitude toward his beliefs. To say that one’s current beliefs are correct is not the same thing as saying that one is never wrong. We can be very open to correction without denying that we currently do not see any deficiencies in our thinking.
Finally, the common adjectives used to describe the ECS do not seem to apply for several reasons. First, if it is true that this is an inescapable aspect of having beliefs, then it would make every person who has beliefs narrow-minded, arrogant, and bigoted with respect to every belief they have, which would empty those terms of meaning. To be open-minded simply means that one is open to correction, which in no way requires one to deny that his current beliefs are true. Further, certain notions, such as tolerance, require the belief that one is right and others are wrong. We tolerate beliefs that we disagree with, which assumes we think they are wrong. Lastly, the fears that seem to arise when people are asked to consider the ECS are more like dispositions and attitudes as opposed to simply thinking that one’s beliefs are right. For example, arrogance, at least in the epistemological sense, seems to be an inclination to think that one could not be wrong about one’s beliefs, which is not the same thing as thinking that one is currently correct in one’s beliefs. This would certainly be a bad quality to have and would presumably lead to a breakdown in rational discourse. However, there is nothing in the ECS that requires one to have this sort of attitude toward his beliefs.
The consequences of denying the ECS and seeing it as a negative attitude are serious. If we fail to recognize our own assumptions and presuppositions, then impenetrable and invisible obstacles are erected to having rational dialogue about the most important things in life. People will fail to see their own hypocrisy in criticizing others for their claims to truth while at the same time making claims to truth themselves. Political figures will vilify the other side as divisive for having beliefs they think are correct as if they themselves do not make opposite claims. Religious dialogue is impotent when it is unrecognized that all sides have views about the world that they take to be correct, and therefore other conflicting views would have to be mistaken.
Humans are thinking beings. To have beliefs is to think that those beliefs are true, and that opposing beliefs are false. By recognizing that this is a natural aspect of having beliefs, we can remove a major obstacle to unity in the world. As long as people believe that the ECS is a problem, we will be denying a necessary element of common ground for rational discourse. However, if we can take this thought captive, then we will be free to address the disputes that remain with sound arguments and open minds.
1. It will be assumed for now that pragmatic reasons for beliefs do not qualify as believing that ‘x’ is true, but rather merely acting like ‘x’ is true. Even these so-called pragmatic beliefs assume that one believes that it is true that one ought to act as if ‘x’ is true, which is itself a belief.
2. I first heard this observation from Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason.